Case studies are like condensed action films—full of characters, plot, and conflict—in which, thanks to your help, the clients get what they want.
Part of a case study's persuasive power comes from its energy. It should be exciting to tell and hear. Many of us, though, bore with ours. The reason? We use the standard problem-solution-result formula—and fumble "the solution" part.
We talk at length about our solution's features, including the research we conducted, the groups we facilitated, the programs we devised, and the hardware we installed. Reciting heavy-duty detail about this kind of process-stuff is monotonous and makes us sound like a million other companies with comparable products and services.
If heaping attention on features brings yawns, what draws people in? Insight does.
Focus on the insight that solved your client's problem, and your audience will hang on your words.
Highlighting an Insight
When you have an insight, the problem you're studying becomes instantly transparent. Something clicks. You get it. From that unexpected understanding, the answer reveals itself.
By highlighting an insight in a case study, you're underscoring how you think, create, strategize, and fix problems.
You, then, become the meaning-maker. You are the differentiator. You're bringing your perspective—which cannot be fully duplicated by competitors—to the fore.
What Does an Insight-Based Case Study Sound Like?
Here's an example for a marketer.
The Problem: A four-person software startup didn't have money to outsource its marketing, so it did the execution in-house. The trouble was, those efforts weren't getting press and didn't result in many prospects. If it didn't straighten out, it'd fold in a matter of months.
The Insightful Solution: The firm hired me to create its marketing plan. To write it, I interviewed the staff. It was while sitting in the firm's office and waiting for those interviews that I noticed something interesting.
Time and again, the members of the staff let distractions get in the way of doing marketing. For instance, they'd start a whitepaper but then make coffee and answer frivolous emails.
I called them on it. They said I was right, they were getting sidetracked, but that was because the marketing initiatives they were tackling were too difficult.
"Why pick such difficult ones?" I asked.
They had heard certain ones, like writing whitepapers, were better than others at capturing prospects' attention.
"Some initiatives are better, but only if you complete them. If you can't bring yourself to complete them, they'll bankrupt you. We need to find initiatives you'll look forward to and finish."
We discussed their interests and disgusts, goals and objectives, and from those I created a plan that excited them and was easy to do.
The Result: In six months, the firm's marketing got it mentioned in four national magazines and 37 newspapers.
The best part? Because of that marketing, seven new customers found the firm. In the past year, those seven have bought nine million dollars worth of products and services from the firm.
Insight as Turning Point
What's the insight in our fictional marketer's case study? You could phrase it several ways, but the idea is this: It doesn't matter how great a marketing initiative is in theory; if you can't get it done, it's worthless; So, devote your time to the best alternatives you can actually complete.
Pulled from the study like that, the insight may not strike you as profound. That's OK. It needn't be wisdom for the ages, or startlingly original. The insight draws its power from its context and relevance. It's the turning point and driving force in the problem-solving story. It demonstrates that you have knowledge and perspective others may not have, and that you use those qualities to make your client's life better.
Steps in Writing an Insight-Based Case Study
- The place to begin is by looking at the results of all your projects. Choose one with an impressive result. A groovy insight cannot save a project with a bland result.
- Once you've selected the project, think about how you came to a solution. If the insight comes to mind, start writing!
- If you can't recall it, do the following:
Ask yourself about how you helped bring about the result. What steps did you take? What observations did you make? What questions did you ask? What strategies did you employ? What creative ideas did you hatch? What philosophy did you preach?
In particular, pay attention to why the clients were stuck. What were they thinking? What were they assuming? What where they blind to? What advice had others given them that was making progress difficult? What surprised you?
- Some of your realizations could be termed "insights." Your job is to select the dominant one. Pick the insight that made the solution possible. The action should flow from that marquee idea.
- Write up the study in problem-solution-result format. When you do so, make sure the solution section downplays your product's or service's features, and plays up the story of how you arrived at and used your insight.
Draw attention to the moment when your thinking started to change. Talk about something surprising that you saw or realized ("While I was studying the spreadsheet, I noticed something unusual... "). Think of yourself as a detective finding clues. After finding enough clues, or stumbling across the right one, the puzzle rapidly comes together, and you know the answer.
You want listeners to understand that you didn't plug in any-old solution. You studied the situation closely, and you came up with the right solution for that situation.
What happens if you can't find a study's dominant insight? You might well have solved the client's problem by doing what you've always done, with no insight required. If that's the case, don't invent an after-the-fact insight. Doing so would seem forced.
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